Amid the excitement caused by Terry Ryan’s return, it was easy to overlook one potentially alarming detail. Ryan said the Twins’ payroll, which sat at about $113 to $115 million in 2011, would be closer to $100 million for 2012. Maybe Ryan was just trying to scare away fans who like to watch good baseball players, or maybe he was just bragging about his amazing GM abilities (“I can sign better players for $100 million than you can for $200 million!”). But if he was serious, it raises a big issue:
Are the Twins planning to enter rebuilding mode?
Okay, I realize that sounds like a stupid question, considering that the team lost 99 games and had the leagues second worst ERA and OPS, and that three of their core players are likely to depart via free agency. 99.99% of the time, if your team met those criteria, you wouldn’t even need to ask. Rebuilding – and a couple more years of crappy baseball – would just be assumed.
But the Twins are a very special 99 loss team. An optimist could consider the 2011 debacle a fluke. After all, most of the team’s troubles could be directly traced to injuries that are not likely to be as severe in the future. As long as Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Denard Span, and Scott Baker return to health and their peak levels of production, the Twins are a winning team on paper. And we’ve heard nothing but optimism from the team’s brass about 2012. They have consistently insisted that they want to field a competitive team next year (and the Twins front office would NEVER lie to us).
Even if you’re one of those Pollyanna-like optimists, though (I must admit, I’m one of them), you have to be a little surprised by the $100 million number. With about $82 million committed to current players’ salaries, that only leaves $18 million to spend on free agents. That all but rules out signing Mark Buehrle or Edwin Jackson, and it would appear to be the nail in the coffin for any dreams or retaining Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan. So even we optimists have to consider that Terry Ryan is ready for one of his patented rebuilds.
What would a full-on rebuild look like?
For starters, it would mean trading the, um, starters. The Twins rotation was arguably the biggest problem last year, but strangely, it could also be the most valuable source of trade bait. Baker, Carl Pavano, and Francisco Liriano could all be sought after commodities on the trade market if the Twins are selling. According to the Star Tribune’s Patrick Reusse, the Yankees mulled trading rising star Ivan Nova and shortstop Eduardo Nunez for Liriano prior to the trading deadline. A strong offseason and/or Spring Training could increase the value of Liriano, who is entering his final arbitration year before free agency. Baker could be even more valuable. He is coming off his best season, albeit an injury-filled one, and he has one year plus a team option left on his contract. In an offseason where the free agent starting pitching market is very weak, plenty of teams would give up good prospects for Baker.
The other obvious sign of would be apparent if the Twins shy away from free agents this offseason. Even at “only” $100 million, the Twins should have enough payroll to bring in one or two key players to fill spots in 2012. But if rebuilding is the order of the day, look for the Twins to give starting spots to players like Trevor Plouffe, Joe Benson, and Brian Dozier instead of signing veterans. Giving playing experience to young players is the hallmark of a rebuilding process.
There is another possibility. The Twins could make a token attempt to compete in 2012 and delay the true rebuilding until midseason. They’d go after some low-cost free agents like Ryan Doumit and David DeJesus to fill spots but not occupy any long term payroll bucks. This plan has one big advantage: some fans would continue to buy tickets in the hope that the team will be good. And hey, who knows, the team could get lucky and win some games (a la the 2008 season). If that didn’t happen, the Twins could start selling off key players in June or July.
Then again, Ryan could have been messing with our minds about the $100 million thing. But hey, it’s the offseason, so no baseball-related tidbit is too trivial to obsess over!